Today members of a number of public sector unions in the UK will be on strike and I will be among them, on the picket line and attending a local rally. There has been a lot of misinformation circulated about why this strike is taking place so I thought I would share some facts and my take on what is happening.
I have worked in the civil service for almost 9 years now and in that time I have seen my original terms and conditions altered time after time, have been faced with a pay freeze that, thanks to inflation, has effectively created a pay cut, & I have seen droves of colleagues leave on redundancy schemes but along with other colleagues have had to take on the workload they have left behind. I am far from militant, in the past I have voted No to strike action, and this will be the first time I have ever been on strike. Those in the private sector argue that they have had to tough this recession out and that it's fair the public sector feels some pain too, but believe me we have been feeling it.
One myth bandied about is that public sector pensions are gold-plated. Whether they are referring to the amount received or how secure it is I've never been sure. However the average public sector pension is around £5,600 pa (hardly gold standard to me) Even Lord Hutton in his interrim report described public sector pensions as fairly modest. As far as being secure, the Government has already made changes to the scheme that makes the final pension worth less by changing from the Retail Price Index to uprate pensions to the Consumer Price Index, the scheme was not reformed all that long ago and now the current proposals will mean public sector workers have to pay more, for longer to get less. And they wonder why people are unhappy! I personally have no issue with the retirement age changing, it's no surprise in light of the fact people are living longer, but when the National Audit Office says public sector pensions have been reformed, significant sums have been saved (and Government projections show costs falling in the short, medium and long term) and that the scheme is sustainable it looks less reasonable.
Going back to comparisons with the private sector, while the pension provision is generally better in the public sector there are millions in the private sector with far superior pensions, and it is wrong to look at this issue in isolation. To compare the position of public and private sector workers you have to consider the whole package including pay and benefits. When I took a job in the public sector I also had the offer of a job in the private sector. I decided that although it would be lower paid the public sector job offered such benefits to make that worthwhile, and the pension was a part of my considerations. I have seen friends working in the private sector receive bonuses that would cover the deposit on a decent house, something the vast majority of workers in the public sector will never see, and something that could be put towards securing a reasonable pension. I don't begrudge that, forgoing the opportunity to earn bonuses like that was my choice, as how they elect to spend it is their.
Unfortunately now my pension is declining in value at quite a rate, while what I am expected to contribute each month rises. As a working mum with a child in nursery the additional cost will make the difference between what I am earning and what I have to pay in nursery fees even smaller, hardly an incentive to get women back into the workforce. Surely as a nation we should be looking to improve things for those who are less well off and bringing the standard up for everyone, rather than creating equality by reducing the standard?
Then we have heard politicians saying that the unions have a weak mandate to strike, considering the number of members who voted. Those same politicians might want to reflect on the fact that, for my union at least, the proportion of members voting for strike action was higher than the proportion of the electorate voting for both parties in the coalition Government at the last general election. Weak mandate hey?
This recession was not caused by the public sector, so raiding the pensions that form part of our contracts shouldn't be the answer. While senior civil servants and the top layer of management may be on comfortable, headline grabbing, salaries the truth is many public sector employees are on so-called Poverty Pay. And to those who have painted us as pencil pushers and bean counters who add no value, why then is it forecast that this strike will potentially cost the country half a billion pounds? Just saying...
So there you have it, some of the reasons I won't be at work on Wednesday. I hope it provides some food for thought, and if you want to read more take a look at http://pensionsjustice.org.uk/